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New King County youth jail faces more resistance

caption: The lobby at the King County juvenile detention center.
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The lobby at the King County juvenile detention center.
KUOW Photo/Natalie Newcomb

Some city and King County leaders are calling for a reappraisal of construction of a new youth jail in Seattle. But they're getting pushback.

County Executive Dow Constantine said there’s still a need to rebuild the current jail, but he says the county should adopt a goal of “zero youth detention.”

"It is the long goal and I’m going to ask the county family, not just the council, but the justice system to adopt that as our goal,” he said.

“Because then we can measure each challenge against that goal. What happened to this kid in his or her life? How can we help this kid, and how can we make sure that doesn’t happen to the next kid coming along?"

Constantine said that's not going to happen overnight.

Constantine points out improvements the county has made in reducing youth incarceration and its $65 million “Best Starts for Kids” plan.

Voters approved a levy to build the Children and Family Justice Center in 2012 and the project received a key city permit in late December.

But activist groups say the money would be better spent on services and education for at-risk youth. And this week, Seattle Mayor Ed Murray, City Councilmember Bruce Harrell and County Councilmember Rod Dembowski called for re-evaluating the project.

Harrell and Dembowski wrote in an editorial in The Stranger on Tuesday that government leaders should “stop and rework this proposal.”

“At a minimum, we must explore a path forward that takes a new, unnecessary youth jail off the table. Such a path might allow us to build the family courthouse we actually need by directing those funds to courtrooms and classrooms, not jail cells.”

In a letter to Constantine and King County Superior Court Judge Laura Inveen, Murray called Monday for “a second look at the facility design” that would help “create the kind of environment needed to meet the needs of those young people who become engaged in our criminal justice system.”

In a letter responding to Murray, Inveen and Judge J. Wesley Saint Clair point out that the county is required by state law to have a detention facility.

They go on to say:

“Your letter implies that the electorate was uninformed of the negative effects of detention when it passed the countywide level in 2012 approving the Children and Family Justice Center, suggesting research on the issue is only several years old. That research has been in existence for many years.”

The judges also say that the average population for all racial groups was reduced by 15.7 percent from 2015 to 2016, and the average for African American youth by 28 percent.

Read the judges' letter.

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